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An Hour at Bethel
Compiled from classmate posts made April 15-16, 2019

Background:  It was “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”  The 1967 rock musical Hair had proclaimed it so, and the 1969 rock music festival known as Woodstock was billed as an Aquarian Exposition.  It was held at Bethel, New York, a couple of months after I graduated from college.

Half a century later, shortly before our 50th reunion, a famous classmate posted his recollections on our reunion website.  He and two friends had briefly attended the third day of the festival on Sunday, August 17, 1969.  Joe Cocker, who had taken the stage around 2:00 that afternoon, performed until about 3:30.  Then a heavy thunderstorm brought everything to a stop for a few hours.  Under a table, purple rain began to fall.  That was the signal for the trio to leave.

Here's how that story was told by my famous classmate, broadcast journalist Robert Krulwich.


I want to talk about Woodstock, about how I woke up one morning in the summer of '69 to hear that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people were converging at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York, clogging the roads, creating a traffic jam so horrific that people were abandoning their cars, trudging the last few miles to the concert leaving no way, absolutely no way to get close to the venue and yet, said the radio announcer, “they keep coming,” a crush of people totally unprecedented yet strangely peaceful and I thought to myself, lying there in my Manhattan bedroom, I have to see this.

It wasn't so much for the music or the drugs, but for the challenge of getting in. I like doing something that everybody says can't be done (“Don't even try,” said the radio guy) and so I lay there thinking if only — if only I had a car (which I didn't), if only I had a driver's license (which I didn't, not even a learners' permit), if only I had someone to go with — I was pretty sure even with a few hundred thousand people already there, I could still find a way, a zigzag trail, a secret route through the traffic, the parked cars, the PortoSans, the police, the Woodstock security lines all the way to that slope of grass in front of the Woodstock stage within spitting distance of Crosby or Stills or Nash or Young or whomever. Yes, I thought, we could prove the All News Radio announcer totally wrong, me and my nameless friend with a car, but who could I call?

It was an August weekend. Anyone interested would already be there. I was too late to do this sensibly and anyway, at 22, I felt definitely a little old for a weekend rock concert, thinking the audience would be more undergrad-ish, even high school, but then I thought “come on, the gauntlet has been thrown, if the Radio Man says there's no way to get there, it's game on” — and that's when I picked up the phone and called Noel Evans.

Noel, I knew, had it all — a car, a drivers' license, and a slightly insane soul, and the reason I'm mentioning this right now is because the last time I wrote a note on this reunion site about my friend Jeff Moore, Noel wrote in to say a few nice things and that set off a flood of memory of us going to Yasgur's farm much later than everybody else and what happened when we got there being so — well, the truth is, because it all happened 50 summers ago, I don't know whether anything I remember is even remotely true.

That's why I'm writing this now. Noel lurks on this site. He's the only person who can tell me if what I remember is fantasy or if some of it (all of it? I doubt it) actually happened, so if you're still out there, Evans — I don't have your phone number — let me line up the pictures I have in my head and you tell me how much jibes with what you remember. This is what old guys do, right? Figure out how wrong they are, hoping maybe to not be.

Here goes:  I called Noel that summer morning at his Connecticut place and we quickly agreed to give it a go (and somehow I'd roped in another Obie, a red-haired woman I knew from Tennessee named Ann — her last name slips my mind) and she and I took the train from Manhattan, met Noel, got into his car and by midday we were on our way. I don't remember anything we did or said until we were — to our great surprise — almost there, just a few miles from Mr. Yasgur's farm. The abandoned cars, the traffic jam, the police presence, everything the radio guy described that morning, every hurdle we were expecting to clear, had somehow dissolved or had never been there — an early case of “fake news” perhaps, or maybe we had come in from exactly the right angle and skirted all trouble, who knows, but happily we had no long hike in, we parked in an actual parking lot, everything worked fine — until we got out of the car. This is where my memory clicks in, strong.

In the movies, Woodstock is this mellow, bedazzled, tie-dyed, joyous romp of hippy types smoking joints and dancing. It was like that, I'm sure, some of the time when the sun was shining and the day was young, but when we arrived it was late afternoon, it had just rained and was about to rain again, there was a chill in the air and people were clutching blankets, curled up, grim, teeth chattering and because in those days soda pop cans had detachable openings, the ground was peppered with loose Coca-Cola pop tops, tiny steel blades hiding in the mud, very dangerous to kids who'd kicked off their shoes, so the place had drawn blood. The first thing I remember stepping out of our car was this half-naked guy with a headband, his foot bleeding, his arms slung over two buddies right and left, looking like a wounded soldier who'd just fought at Bull Run or Antietam. The place felt, oddly, like the edge of a battlefield.

We looked around, nobody was taking tickets, so we simply walked in, wandered past clustered couples huddled on wet sleeping bags clinging for warmth, and very quickly reached the top of what had been a slope, a natural amphitheater.

Down below, on the stage was — well, his voice was totally familiar, I'd just never seen him before. It was Joe Cocker.

The crowd was throwing stuff playfully in the air and he held himself oddly, swaying as he sang.

Clouds were building, darkening the sky, and if I haven't focused on Noel yet, or Ann, it's because I was so absorbed by the strangeness of the scene. At one point somebody got on the stage and read the crowd a newspaper account of how peaceful they were despite the huge number of people all clumped together, and the crowd listened and then applauded itself. It was a strangely self-conscious moment: an audience being made aware that there's a bigger audience out there watching it watch itself. The article wasn't short, and the guy read it to the end.

We were thirsty. No doubt there were water bottles stashed somewhere, and Ann noticed there had been refreshment stands, crude wooden tables set up to distribute bottles, but during the previous rain they'd been closed, the bottles taken away, so we began looking for an open kiosk and that's when it began, once again, to rain and then rain seriously.

We didn't know where to go. The trees were taken, people huddled at their bases, so lacking cover we decided to duck down inside a crude wooden table covered with some purple-dyed paper. It wasn't exactly dry down there, the water percolating through, dripping purple and plopping on us below, some of it landing on Ann's hair and shoulders, and that is when — and here I'm just not sure how much I can trust my memory — I'm looking at you, Noel — this is when Ann announced that she was allergic to color dyes and had to get out of there, quickly. We'd only been at Woodstock for maybe an hour, maybe a little more, and she was, you could see it in her face, getting more and more anxious. We got out from under the purple paper to where it was raining harder and was cold and there was nowhere to go, no medical tent we could see, and so — with the stage on pause, Joe Cocker gone, the crowd huddled — we made our way back to the only dry spot we knew: Noel's car.

And that was that. We had crashed the country's greatest Aquarian moment, three days of — what did the poster say? "Peace and Music," the dawning of an age — and we'd been rained on, gotten allergic and left. Had we been 18 or 17 or 16, we'd have probably stayed, gotten through the chills, gotten high, gotten naked, but we were in our twenties, older than average for that crowd, so, even though Ann didn't go into shock or as far as I know suffer any serious purple-dye complications, we behaved like the almost-adults we'd become:  having crashed what was really a teen party, we decided to tiptoe, soberly, gingerly, away.

I'm glad we went. I'm glad we made it to the stage, that we had the gumption, but for me (wondering about you, Noel), that day was one of the first of what would become a long, then longer string of I'm Too Old For This moments, which keep happening, of course, but started, now that I think about it, so, so early.

So that was my Woodstock, not a “Coming of Age” event but an “Aging Out” one — or so I remember, or think I remember, which leaves me wondering — you too, Noel? Or did I get this wrong?


   Noel Evans replied:

Thanks for the question about Woodstock, Bob. I often think about our intrepid, soggy journey with Ann (whom I remembered as Ashley — but Ann is right, I think). Ann had beautiful flaming red hair, which always seemed right for the dawning of Aquarius out there in those rolling hilly cow pastures. Already our memories are diverging, Bob. I'm seeing flaming Aquarian hair while you're concerned for the muddy foot-bleeder in the rain as we entered.

I remember the same enjoyment over the fact that we just drove right in, seemingly outwitting everyone — but actually enjoying a quirk of lag time between the radio's saying you couldn't get within 10 miles, and everybody pulling over to walk into what was briefly the 12th largest city in the country (I think?).

It's incredible to read your account, Bob, because, like your memory, mine is not that clear. Maybe in my case because I did take a puff or two as joints were passing by (learned at Oberlin). And, like yourself, things are generally less clear now in these golden years. You put it perfectly: “...So I remember, or think I remember, which leaves me wondering....”

It is clear that both of us thought Ann was a very attractive hippie lady. In fact, my memory's Rashomon version is that before the dreaded purple dye, I slunk off in the mud for a bit, lost track of you and Ann, and assumed you two had snuck off to some free-love yurt built nearby. I remember some mud-sliding, and I thought I saw the sun come up. (“Dawning” was a big theme.)

Didn't hear a whole lot of music after Joe Cocker — that I remember. I thought I saw people grooving about each other's naked muddy bodies, versus the shivering huddled masses in your memory, Bob. But who knows? I might have just seen it in the movie. Doesn't matter to me, either way. We were really there. We three know that.

Like the Sixties in general, it may be that there were the more humanitarian, kind and gentle folk — like you, Bob — and then hippies like me who wanted to see nude mud-sliders, get high, get lucky, hear music. It was multi-dimensional, that's for sure.

I do remember that we both agreed that we should leave if the purple poison was making Ann uncomfortable. (Gallant young men starting a New Generation of love and caring...) I had sort of forgotten about leaving, but I had the car keys, so I must have left with you two. (I'm not still there. Or was it a new age portal?)

There was no traffic driving out either. Easy in, easy out. Come late and leave early — the best approach to any party, especially when a whole generation is involved.

I know you found taller pinnacles from which to proclaim, Bob, but I probably get more mileage out of saying I was at Woodstock than anything else I can say. I've fantasized that you and I and Ann should return to Yasgur's farm and do an onsite anniversary radio documentary fifty years later. But then, what would we talk about? Aging out, over the years, too old for that now.

I kept my personal freak flag flying for a few more years after Woodstock, but you nailed the inevitable aging-out process very clearly, Bob, in your description above.

But, always good to remember going on an adventure with gumption, as you say.

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